In the English planning system, context is crucial - one of the first things that architects are meant to think about is how a building fits into its setting. But what if that context changes completely? In this case, we start with a very plain bungalow on a large plot. It sat on the border between a street with an assortment of house types and a large postwar social housing estate with a typical mix of high and medium-rise blocks of flats with lots of space between them.
A huge regeneration project transformed the estate, bringing in mostly shorter buildings more densely arranged on conventional streets. Car parks gave way to housing. And the bungalow now looked both very dated and an inefficient use of the amount of space it was taking up.
So the owner wanted to understand how he could make the most of the land he had. The potential was clearly there, but compared to nearby semi-detached plots, this was narrow. Was there a smart way we could design the houses so that we could get the most development potential for our clients while creating good places to live?
The conventional way to approach this challenge would be to design two traditional semi-detached houses with mirrored layouts. But exploring the possibilities, we began thinking that taking a different path would lead to better results. Rather than two rather cramped identical houses, wouldn’t it be better to create one full-sized (four-bedroom) family home and then a smaller, two-bedroom neighbour for it? These would be semi-detached and share the same design style, but be asymmetrical.
This conceptual breakthrough had advantages all around. From the client’s point of view, he had two attractive properties to pitch to different sectors of the market. From the council’s, it was a net addition of a family house without the loss of a smaller home, good news considering London’s shortage of places to live.
We had a pre-application meeting with the council, who endorsed the concept while making some suggestions about details, for example, facade materials. Based on this, we moved on to the full planning application. This included a flood risk assessment, because – like large swathes of the capital – the site was in a flood zone. It’s still possible to build homes in these areas, we knew that, but you do have to design them carefully.
The council were happy to grant planning permission. For us, it’s another example of how many high-quality extra homes we can fit comfortably into our towns and cities if we don’t just mimic the proportions and arrangements of Victorian homes.
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